Enjoy your REF, while you can

This week the results of the latest cycle of research audit in UK universities will be published. Tomorrow HEIs will receive their own results for each Unit of Assessment submitted, on Wednesday they will be given the embargoed results for the whole sector, and on Thursday all results will be made public.

This will trigger a frenzy of analysis across the higher education community as the bones of REF 2014 are picked over with a view to identifying winners and losers, risers and fallers, and what if anything it might mean for the future. On Thursday HESA will release contextual data on the number of staff eligible for submission in each university, leading to further speculation on ‘game playing’ and the inevitable calls for reform of the audit system.

It’s all good fun (mostly). Academic reputations and careers are made through the research assessment process and the five to six year cycle tends to be a staging post for retirements and departures amongst senior managers. Sometimes failure calls for a resignation, often success leads to a promotion. While for many academic staff there is an obsessional over-investment in results that seem to define their own sense of self. It is almost as if the symbolism of the REF is now more important than the distribution of money attached to it.

Quality Related research income, distributed by HEFCE on the basis of audit results, has been in decline for a while. The 2008 dispensation of £1.6bn was less generous than many had anticipated and in this parliament there has been a further cut of £45M as funding for outputs rated 2* was removed in 2010. While the Coalition can claim that the science budget (that includes QR) has been ring-fenced in a flat-cash settlement, this means, even by government measures, that the value of this budget has seen a real terms fall of 2.5% per year. With universities facing a range of financial pressures from rising energy costs to the decreasing value of undergraduate fees, the decline in QR has been keenly felt. When it comes to research, higher education is suffering its own cost of living crisis.

This time around no vice chancellor will be naïve enough to imagine that any budgetary shortfall in their university is about to be relieved by grabbing a bigger slice of the QR pie. On the contrary, prudent finance directors will be planning on a fall in income regardless of how well their academics have done in the REF.

During this Parliament, there has been little appetite for removing the science ring-fence. When corrections to the BIS accounts have been required (as a result of errors around the student loan book), science and research has been protected in preference to widening participation budgets and student support. This is in part testament to the lobbying power of the Russell Group, but also reflects a genuine government commitment to the UK’s capacity for R&D.

In the post-Willetts world, the Treasury is now the true department for higher education, and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was characterised by a number of investment projects in science (like the ‘Crick o’the North’) and universities (like ‘Olympicopolis’ in London and the proposed postgraduate loan scheme). Listening to George Osborne at the dispatch box one could be mistaken for thinking that the only option for young people in the next five years will be to enrol on an MSc in Graphene Studies in Manchester.

However, for the most part this investment package was a skillful representation of previously committed funds. There was little talk in the Autumn Statement of what the world of higher education will look like after a Comprehensive Spending Review in 2016. Analysis suggests that if George Osborne, or any other would be Chancellor who pledged to keep within the current spending envelope, is to both retain the ring-fence for the NHS and Schools and meet deficit reduction targets, then non-ring-fenced budgets across Whitehall will need to be cut by a third before 2020. This includes the BIS budget, which would lose £4-5bn and in which the £4.6bn Science and QR pot sits.

There have been mixed signals coming out of BIS on possible future cuts. It is said that Vince Cable has instructed his civil servants not to co-operate with any Treasury inspired modelling of reductions after 2016, but there has been planning done for a £400m cut in 2015/16.

Despite Cable’s veto of the sale of the student loan book, the assumption of the £12bn it would raise still appears in Treasury forecasts. Add to this the cost of the new postgraduate loan scheme and the uncapping of undergraduate numbers, and then it looks as if something will have to give in BIS’ budget. Winding up HEIF (£160M), part of the science budget, and stripping out the residue of student support, of which deeper cuts had already been postponed until 2015/16, may not be enough to square the circle, although options remain over transferring some items of expenditure (such as the Medical Research Council) to other ring-fenced budgets.

However, there will be few constituencies in the May 2015 election where the REF and the science budget will be doorstep issues.

All of which means that the REF game is one in which universities run ever faster to chase after a dwindling pot, like the Dodo race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Dodo race is characterised by everyone declaring themselves a winner regardless of where they end up, while the final prize awarded to Alice is a thimble from her own pocket.

Whether there will be a meaningful QR budget to be distributed beyond 2015 remains to be seen. The prospects of that pot shrinking to the size of a thimble by 2020 must be relatively high. Despite HEFCE’s consideration of an International REF, to spread the competitive spirit of obsessional neurosis abroad, questions remain over the possibility of a REF 2020. Will gargantuan institutional efforts and a full REF apparatus be required by then to distribute potentially quite limited funds?

In a world of reduced research resources, is the present atomistic, competitive model fit for purpose, as opposed to the need to support quality, collaborative, interdisciplinary and increasingly expensive science research? HEFCE will want to pin down the answers to these questions quickly after the election in order to secure its own mission. But the answers may not be straightforward.

REF 2014 was itself postponed by a year during uncertainty at the start of this Parliament. The confluence of this postponement and the onset of fixed-term parliaments now risks leaving all future audit periods and their funding outcomes on the cusp of indecision. This may require an adjustment to REF cycles or longer-term commitments to research funding across parliaments.

There will likely be pressure to give the REF wheel one more spin. The fallers will want another chance to restore their reputations, and this time round the unknown factor of ‘impact’ may well produce unexpected results across the sector. Yet, it is a system riven with paradoxes. The REF principle of funding research excellence wherever it is found is difficult to square with repeated ministerial requests for the continued concentration of resources. The two demands pull in opposite directions, resulting in increasingly elaborate attempts to tinker with the rules in order to produce a preferred set of outcomes.

However, there can never be a ‘perfect’ system of research audit that will map ratings on to a pre-determined set of institutions, because it is not possible to produce a quantitative solution to something that remains fundamentally a qualitative judgment. Any undergraduate reader of Kant’s Third Critique could tell you that.

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